Municipal and regional elections regarded as a key test for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government will be held on 30 March after weeks of campaign tension that has not spared Turkey’s journalists.
Embroiled in political and financial scandals and waging an information war with the influential followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, the government has stepped up pressure on the media. Reporters Without Borders deplores the poisonous climate in which journalists have to work and the censorship to which they are subjected.
“The Erdogan government’s sole response to mounting criticism seems to be more intolerance and a growing determination to control the flow of information,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire.
“Its authoritarian approach is exacerbating media polarization, which has reached disturbing levels. The election campaign has underscored the urgency of the need for the government to repair relations with the media and stop reacting automatically with more repression.”
Deloire added: “A complete overhaul of Turkey’s media regulatory bodies is also essential in order to turn them into truly independent entities instead of organs of state censorship.”
Censors use double standards
Ever since the campaign officially began on 1 January, the Election High Council (YSK) has been in charge of enforcing electoral regulations and punishing media that break them – punishments that are applied by the Radio and TV High Council (RTÜK). Their decisions have been clearly biased in favour of the ruling AKP.
The state TV channel TRT received nothing more than a caution for devoting 89.5 per cent of its campaign coverage from 22 February to 2 March to the AKP. During the same period, it devoted 5 per cent to the republican CHP, 5.3 per cent to the nationalist MHP and 0.2 per cent to the pro-Kurd BDP.
On the other hand, the YSK recently ordered Samanyolu Haber TV, a news channel that supports the Gülen movement, not to broadcast one of its programmes for eight days as a punishment for broadcasting an opposition leader’s news conference on 11 February in which recordings of compromising phone conversation between the prime minister and businessmen were played.
Instead of its programme, the station had to broadcast an RTÜK-produced documentary. Samanyolu Haber TV editor in chief Metin Yikar said a total of 20 broadcasts of seven of the station’s programmes have been withdrawn since the start of the campaign, “the harshest penalty in our group’s history.”
Samanyolu Broadcasting Group chairman Hidayet Karaca said he fears that the RTÜK will withdraw its broadcasting licence.
At the start of March, the YSK ordered Cem TV, a channel that supports Turkey’s Alevi community, to suspend two of its programmes – the evening news and “Turkey, awake” – for five and four days respectively for reporting the results of a poll without giving the sample size. The poll showed a fall in support for the AKP.
The punishment was “out of all proportion,” Cem TV news director Pinar Isik Ardor told the Reporters Without Borders Turkey representative, Erol Önderoglu. “These measures clearly show what Turkey has come to,” Cem Media Group chairman Celal Toprak said, adding, “punishing without any warning is extremely grave.”
Harassment and dismissals
The election campaign has been marked by the intermittent broadcasting of segments of confidential conversations confirming government pressure on leading news media. Regardless of reservations about such spying, the leaks have spotlighted the scale of the censorship and intimidation practiced in Turkey.
In one of the latest recordings, leaked on 18 March, a voice said to be the prime minister’s is heard scolding Fatih Saraç, the Habertürk media group’s deputy chairman, about the way the Habertürk daily newspaper and Habertürk TV were covering the political and financial scandal involving the sons of three government ministers that broke on 17 December.
“Your TV station talks of corruption and your newspaper has corruption in its headlines. How come you’ve decided there is corruption? Do you have the right? (...) From now, no longer call me in the name of your boss and his group. I am breaking off these ties.” At the end of the conversation, the voice said to be Saraç’s says: “OK, I will do what’s necessary.” Saraç left the Habertürk board at the end of December.
In another clear sign of this kind of pressure and the resulting self-censorship, journalists critical of the government continue to be dismissed. Arzu Caglan, a presenter on Best FM, and Cagdas Dogan, a reporter for the sports daily Fotomaç, were fired for their reactions to the death of Berkin Elvan, a 14-year-old boy who was injured by police in June and died on 11 March after nine months in a coma.
The boy’s death sparked a nationwide wave of protests and emotion. Dogan was dismissed for posting a tweet critical of the government and pro-government media. Caglan was fired for weeping during her last programme after learning that the boy had died.
Tweeting about her dismissal after 21 years with Best FM, Caglan wrote: “I headed one of the most popular programmes. Until now, I’d never had a sanction from the RTÜK or a court case. I am the victim of a totally arbitrary decision. To those that ask, the management says I resigned but it’s not true. This is disgraceful.”
Sibel Oral was fired from his position as a journalist with the daily Aksam at the start of March for tweeting: “Get lost, RTE (Recep Tayyip Erdogan)!” Balçiçek Pamir resigned from the daily Türkiye to protest its coverage of Berkin Elvan’s death.
Police violence and impunity
At least ten journalists were attacked by riot police while covering the street protests that occurred from 11 to 13 March in response to Berkin Elvan’s death. Those attacked in Ankara included Meltem Aslan, Cinar Özer, Selahattin Sönmez, Mert Gökhan Koç, Zuhal Atlan, Özgen Bingöl and Hüseyin Cözen.
Ten months after the start of the Gezi Park protests, it is clear that the government has made no effort to improve protection for journalists covering demonstrations. They continue to be the victims of systematic and disproportionate force, with no distinction being made between media personnel and demonstrators.
In so doing, the Turkish authorities are failing to comply with the recommendations that UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay made in a report published on 21 January 2013 on the protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.
Pillay said: “States must also ensure that anyone monitoring and reporting on violations and abuses occurring during peaceful protests, including journalists, community media workers, other media professionals and bloggers, do so without fear of intimidation, legal and physical harassment and violence. In this regard, the state has an obligation to protect them.”
(Photo: Ozan Kose / AFP)